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Jill has been blogging for Feministe since 2005.
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49 Responses

  1. Sarah TX
    Sarah TX November 26, 2008 at 3:59 pm |

    There was an NPR piece this year contrasting Dr. Tucker with more liberal, dare I say enlightened, psychologists. In short, I think what he asks of some of these parents and their children is monstrous. These kids are going to grow up so fucking confused, it breaks my heart.

  2. Sarah TX
    Sarah TX November 26, 2008 at 3:59 pm |

    I’m sorry, it is “Dr. Zucker”.

  3. Tim
    Tim November 26, 2008 at 4:11 pm |

    My experience as a parent is that my kids arrived in this world with a personality. I think most people agree with that idea to some extent. From that point forward we try to smash kids into particular roles and it seems like a horrible waste of time and it’s cruel in many cases. I think your first paragraph really nails it, Jill.

  4. Thomas
    Thomas November 26, 2008 at 4:21 pm |

    Jill, this is great stuff. I’ll repeat here what I wrote on a similar thread about the article on Feministing:

    I read this in the dead-tree edition of The Atlantic. There has been coverage of Ken Zucker, who is discussed in the article, at Feministe and I think here since the announcement that he will edit the Gender Identity Disorder section of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

    The article does a really good job of giving a view to the world of families with a gender dismorphic child. There is a fork in the road at puberty, and either choice had permanent consequences. It’s terrible for children in their tweens and early teens who know little about themselves and less about the world to have to make, with their families, permanent medical decisions. But there’s no getting around it. Once puberty hits, if allowed to run its course, and physical changes will forever limit transition; putting the kid on blockers will limit puberty and virtually commit kids to transitioning. Either way, they have to decide at a very young age.

    I can’t help thinking that our rigid binary is a lot of the problem. Not the whole thing. (Dr. John Money, I’m looking at your gravestone. There’s a biological aspect, and we still don’t fully understand its parameters.) But if we accepted genderfluidity, would kids feel so conflicted and driven to be one or the other, male or female? Isn’t it obvious that some of these kids would be better with a “neither/some of each/depends on the day” option? (And wouldn’t all of us? But that’s a bigger question.)

    Zucker’s methods are as subtle as a medieval battering ram. He indoctrinates kids with stereotypes, and tells parents to cut off and punish all nonconforming behavior. To Zucker, not-trans is a good outcome. But the article discusses one of his patients who does not want to transition; she’s cisgendered, but she’s miserable and cuts herself. I wonder if Zucker’s outcomes are really any better from a happiness and wellbeing standpoint. Actually, I doubt that they are.

    Zucker seems intent on hightening the dichotomy: widening the chasm to discourage kids from trying to jump across. That, it seems to me, is just the wrong way to go.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there has been some criticism of the Atlantic article.

  5. Serendipity
    Serendipity November 26, 2008 at 4:45 pm |

    It’s strange, I read the story and initially thought “how peculiar that children can be transgendered at such a young age”. Then I recalled that in fact, by these standards, I was transgendered from the ages of 3-5. I demanded that my hair be cut short, I pulled off any dresses that were put on me, I declared I was male, I made up a male name for myself… I suspect my behaviour was less extreme than some of the behaviours in the article, but the point remains. My parents never thought it particularly peculiar and let me do as I wanted, including cutting my hair short. I’m female (now?) and have never felt uncomfortable about my gender identity, although I am bisexual.

    It sounds like many of these issues could potentially be solved by just not thinking of gender in very rigid terms. I’ve always been a little suspicious of sex-change operations for just that reason. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t change their sex/gender if they want to. I just think that in a true post-feminist utopia, no one would bother to have any surgery.

    Except to add boobs. Boobs are great.

  6. Cara
    Cara November 26, 2008 at 5:04 pm |

    It sounds like many of these issues could potentially be solved by just not thinking of gender in very rigid terms. I’ve always been a little suspicious of sex-change operations for just that reason. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t change their sex/gender if they want to. I just think that in a true post-feminist utopia, no one would bother to have any surgery.

    Except to add boobs. Boobs are great.

    Um, maybe as someone who just said she has never been uncomfortable about her gender identity, YOU’RE NOT THE BEST PERSON TO MAKE THAT CALL??? And maybe it’s best to not trivialize people’s major life decisions and an aspect of transition that is very important to many women as “boobs are great.” Just a thought.

  7. Emily
    Emily November 26, 2008 at 5:04 pm |

    Zucker is simply a barbaric, evil man. What he does, he does without trying to understand trans people. He is trying to force people into a space which may not fit them

    It’s very normal for children to go through stages of questioning their gender (being transsexual, every one of my friends who has kids calls me the first time they see cross-gendered behaviour in their children). However, for some of us, it is more than questioning our gender, it’s realising over years that something horrible has happened.

    I first started asking questions about why my sister and I were different when we were both girls when I was five or six. My parents (in the 1970s way) responded by pushing me into the male pigeon hole and making me realise how horribly wrong it is for a ‘boy’ to ‘act like a girl’.

    I lived through years of horrible self-loathing, bullying and fear as the realisation who I was became more and more clear. Pushing me into a gender role which didn’t fit was exactly the worst thing which could have happened to me.

    Now, I’m afraid that like a lot of transsexual people, I see a gender binary, from a biological level. For me it was always clear: I was on the wrong side of the binary. I know that this statement is what makes a lot of right-wing/radical feminists hate trans people, but it’s just so clear to the majority of us.

    However, I agree that a more flexible view of gender roles is what we need to help children like these. We should let them explore who they are and not pigeon hole them. Kids can so easily live in-between genders (I did as soon as I got out of the house) and it’s only when puberty arrives that the real decisions need to be considered.

    As for surgery, post feminist or not, try living in a body which doesn’t match your mind. It is frankly horrible. I have parts of my body which don’t even feel remotely like they belong to me… They’re just wrong. Trying to tell a trans person that living in a gender free society will fix this is just not going to work… It’s deeper than that. Your body just doesn’t match your mental map of it and that’s not fun at all.

  8. Emily
    Emily November 26, 2008 at 5:05 pm |

    Oh… Cripes. That was a long one. Sorry! :-S

  9. Alexandra Lynch
    Alexandra Lynch November 26, 2008 at 5:15 pm |

    While I mostly am fine with being female (the multiple orgasm thing compensates for a lot), and feel my identity to be female, I have a deep and profound dislike of “girliness” “cuteness” and “pretty”, and I always have. It’s something I’ve just always lived with but never much considered the root of. I do always find the articles and comments on this site give me furiously to think. So thank you.

  10. little light
    little light November 26, 2008 at 5:22 pm |

    I find this article really troubling.

    Its biases are obvious: the author even consistently uses the wrong pronouns for adult trans people and puts any trans people’s preferred names and pronouns in scare quotes, for starters. It consitently equates gender and gender identity with binary blue-and-pink stereotypes–the kid must think they’re a girl/boy because they like Barbies/soldiers, and so on–which most trans people would say is a ridiculous oversimplification and minimization. It emphasizes how “normal” that first mother is–her femininity rituals, appearance and so on, so you know whatever’s happening it’s not her “fault”–and only mentions in passing her military service. Because that’s apparently not a thing “normal” women can do.

    More damningly, it approvingly quotes Zucker–notorious for homophobic, borderline-abusive ‘reparative-therapy’ type treatments where a child is denied attention, affection, and privileges if they keep expressing the preferences found problematic, which are always defined by strict binary gender norms–at length. I think the ending says it all: Zucker’s patients, mostly brought by parents extremely anxious not to have gender-variant children, often express as teens that yes, they’re happy with their assigned gender, but show blatant signs of utter misery. You’ve got a kid whose whole life and world is defined by parents who want to pressure them into a narrow gender role with this doctor making them even stricter, what’s a kid *going* to say? And which parents are going to argue with a doctor that says that their kid is sick and going to grow up miserable and it’s their fault for being bad parents on some Freudian level, and the only way to redeem themselves is to do as he says?

    I was thrown out of a preschool for refusing to admit I was a boy, to the consternation of many adults around me. By the time I was I was thirteen, I’d learned full well that there were consequences–often violent consequences–for asserting that I wasn’t a boy, and I’d learned those at a young age. Does that mean I wasn’t a girl, or that my own sense of myself was the same thing as I was telling authority figures? Hell, no. Like the teenaged former patient of Zucker’s in the article, I had learned to outwardly adhere to many gender norms and tell parents and therapists and bullies that I was fine identifying as male–and meanwhile, behind closed doors, was depressed, suicidal, and self-harming. My gender identity didn’t change; I just learned I’d be harmed if I didn’t hide it, and accepted self-loathing as a survival necessity. I would be shocked if most of these kids didn’t, as I and many people I know did, come out and begin transition as soon as their parents no longer have control over their lives. I wasn’t helped by everyone trying to “fix” me–I just had my sense of self, trust in my own perceptions, and faith in the adults around me wrecked, plus a healthy dose of crippling depression and anxiety.

    If that’s seen as a “solution”–a kid who “stops” being gender-nonconforming, and instead starts being miserable and self-destructive–this is not a victory. It’s not. And as a parent, I hope that if I’m ever faced with raising a gender-variant kid, I’ll have the courage to look at the choices–a kid who’s blissful when allowed to express themselves freely but risks social censure, or a kid that learns to fit someone else’s idea of who they are at the cost of their own misery–and support my child.

    For Gods’ sakes, these children aren’t being given surgeries. They’re just being given a chance to move around and figure out who they are, and it doesn’t hurt them. The most extreme treatment for kids is just puberty blockers–completely reversible chemical treatment that simply puts off physical puberty long enough for them to grow a little and mature enough to make a more informed decision. If they decide no, they’re not trans, then no harm, no foul.

    I would suggest that people interested in this subject material look into the organization TransActive, which provides an alternate perspective–one that says that gender-nonconformity can be perfectly healthy for children, and that those children can grow up to be perfectly happy, healthy, functional adults when they and their parents have the right resources to support them.
    Here: http://www.transactiveonline.org/

  11. piny
    piny November 26, 2008 at 5:50 pm |

    And maybe it’s best to not trivialize people’s major life decisions and an aspect of transition that is very important to many women as “boobs are great.”

    Transitioning women and transitioning men, really, as well as many people with other genders.

    Riki Wilchins wondered one time why it would necessarily go this way–if it were no big deal to have whatever body, why would people be less and not more likely to play around with their secondary sexual characteristics?

    And what Little Light said. Zucker’s method is not a course of treatment so much as the default for gender difference. The families who feel unequipped to deal with different kids are probably in the majority, but the ones who deal with it by allowing children some freedom are probably pretty rare even now. There are plenty of families who use his tactics without any awareness of the man, because it’s normal to treat trans, gender-dissonant, and gender-nonconforming kids as bad, crazy, and wrong.

  12. Lauren O
    Lauren O November 26, 2008 at 6:27 pm |

    Well that sounds helpful — just teach him that girls are stupid and weak and then he won’t want to be one.

    And if they’re not stupid and weak, then they should be; apparently the only reason John felt like a girl was because his mother was (gasp!) “dominant.”

    It’s very interesting to see. All transgender attitudes are seen as wrong, but it seems like the fear at the heart of that wrongness is of femaleness, or at least of femaleness upsetting the natural order of gender.

    Anyway, great post. Fascinating stuff!

  13. Emily
    Emily November 26, 2008 at 6:31 pm |

    @Piny
    Riki Wilchins wondered one time why it would necessarily go this way–if it were no big deal to have whatever body, why would people be less and not more likely to play around with their secondary sexual characteristics?

    Because a when you are really young, these characteristics don’t mean anything to you at a social level. You just look at the other kids around you and realise that this is just not right… You don’t have what you were meant to have.

    What I really don’t like is when people who haven’t lived this start making judgements about how we see this. It’s so incredibly deep in our brains that this is wrong that no changes to society will fix this… I can live in a vacuum and I’m still so sure that my body doesn’t match my brain, just as I discovered to my surprise when I was a kid.

    Zucker’s method is not a course of treatment so much as the default for gender difference. The families who feel unequipped to deal with different kids are probably in the majority, but the ones who deal with it by allowing children some freedom are probably pretty rare even now.

    First of all, I will agree with the latter part of your statement: Yes, the majority of parents will react with fear and misunderstanding and try to force their child into their assigned gender.

    Zucker goes a lot further. He does aversion therapy, the same therapy that was done to women in the 19th century when they refused to fit their required submissive role, the same treatment that the religious right want to push on gay people to ‘cure’ them. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked into these therapies, but they are cruel… They leave mental scars. Zucker is not doing what is the default for the gender difference, he’s preying on parents’ fears and damaging their children so they stay in the ‘norm’ he and the parents have defined.

    This is no better than mutilating intersexed children, forcing them to choose a gender because their genitals are closer to male or to female, getting it wrong far, far too often. Unfortunately, because people can’t see what’s going on inside our heads, they don’t see the damage that this does, so it’s still acceptable to say ‘trans people would be happy without surgery if…’

    With the increasing evidence that transsexualism is a pre-natal condition, happening at a biological level in the brain and maybe even elsewhere in the body, it is time that this barbaric thought process be stopped. People who believe in therapy or in a degendered world as a fix for our problem are playing with our lives.

  14. William
    William November 26, 2008 at 6:43 pm |

    As a cisgendered individual in the field of psychology my perspective comes from the clinical process side of things rather than the trans side of things, but I’d like to second the horror that a lot of posters are expressing about Zucker’s methods. I’ll also acknowledge my psychodynamic background and anti-biological model bias up front. Unfortunately, Zucker is an animal of the institutions that birthed him. The real problem with how trans youth (and really, trans people in general) are treated is rooted in how the mainstream psychiatric system deals with and defines gender.

    Its important to note that the DSM is put out by the American Psychiatric Association. What we’re talking about are people who are trained from a very early period (In Zucker’s case from at least two schools with relatively low academic standards) to believe that mental illness is a medical problem. Further more “mental illness” is any of a discrete group of symptom clusters defined by a fairly conservative institution. Those clusters are developed by looking at various abnormal behaviors. That means that all abnormality not valued by the dominant society becomes pathology in need of treatment. The ideal end result, the definition of health, is someone who is closer to the mean. Couple that with the fact that transgenderism means sexuality to a lot of people (regardless of the accuracy of that belief) and that any suggestion of childhood sexuality is recoiled from by the CBT crowd and you end up with transgender kids being subjected to terrible treatments.

    This line of thinking works very well in a medical setting. If your heart stops beating you likely want to return things to normal. In psychological settings it doesn’t work nearly as well. I’d wager that even the intelligent and thoughtful people who tend to post here would have trouble developing any useful and specific definition of “happiness” or “attractive.” Abormality in psychological function is a messy thing that is almost impossible to identify.

  15. William
    William November 26, 2008 at 6:54 pm |

    With the increasing evidence that transsexualism is a pre-natal condition, happening at a biological level in the brain and maybe even elsewhere in the body,

    I’d be careful about going down that road, especially with how spotty the research is. Transsexualism might have a biological component, but aggressively promoting the view that what we’re talking about has a biological etiology just encourages and legitimizes the medical/socially normative response of people like Zucker. If being transgendered (or gay) is something pre-natal and deviant from the mean (in a strictly statistical sense) then the medical community will approach it as a birth defect because thats all they know how to do. We already see this response with intersex children all the time.

    I’m not saying that being transsexual is a choice, mind you. Socially or psychologically developed personality characteristics can be just as (I’d argue far more) and important and just as unwilled as anything biologically determined. When you start talking about biology you end up in medical/empirical/logical positivist territory and they only define health in the negative: health is the absence of any abnormality. Anything which is abnormal becomes unhealthy until proven otherwise.

  16. lilacsigil
    lilacsigil November 26, 2008 at 7:14 pm |

    Between the ages of 7 and 10, in the early 80s in rural Australia, I dressed as a boy – short hair, male clothing, the whole lot. I am not a transgendered person. I am also very glad that my parents were completely untroubled by my gender non-conformity and didn’t take me to therapy, decide I was a transboy, or force me to be girly. It troubles me that gender non-conformist children can ONLY be transgender children; and even more so that transgender children are pushed into extremely strict gender roles (whether in therapy for or against transgender behaviour), even stricter than their actual gender would indicate. At least information about puberty-preventing hormones is getting out, so that the transgender kids have a chance to stop the wrong puberty.

  17. Personal Failure
    Personal Failure November 26, 2008 at 7:27 pm |

    This drives me bonkers! It’s like our understanding of sexuality as either 100% straight or 100% gay. The fact is, most people are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. (Personally, I think I’m about 85% straight. There are some women . . . wow!)

    I am a woman. I wear makeup and skirts. I like flowers. I also like violent video games and football. I hate the idea of a fancy wedding. Growing up, I was a “tomboy”, because it is always more acceptable for a girl to show boy traits than vice versa. Pulling the hubby out of this trap has been torture. At least now he admits that he is the one who decorated our house, not me.

    If we could get over girl v. boy and just accept that everyone is equal and the way anyone feels about themselves is unassailably valid, the world would be a way better place.

  18. Mireille
    Mireille November 26, 2008 at 8:13 pm |

    I have maybe an uncommon experience. I can’t say I really ever felt like “I’m a boy” or “I’m a girl”, at least not in a positive or confirming way. Until I hit puberty, I didn’t really feel like anything. My parents were pretty egalitarian, so I didn’t get strict gender roles from them, so I felt fine doing whatever I did. At puberty, that was when I just started to feel “this isn’t right” but I was never able to put a name to it.

    I’ve heard many trans people state they felt very distinctly what they were at a very young age. I didn’t, yet I am trans. And others who have felt gender non-conforming at a young age, but grew to feel comfortable in their own bodies. What that tells me is at such a young age, I don’t think children know who they are and they are experimenting and discovering, and I think the best would be for parents to let them do what they do without gendering what they do… Neither trying to make them conform to birth sex, or going all out and trying to make them conform to the opposite, just let them be. I don’t know because gender never meant much to me for a very long time.

    And as for the gender binary, I think a lot of the hostility that they face comes from two directions… One, from society at large that think they are freaks that are trying to break gender norms, and from some radical feminists who think they are trying to reinforce gender norms. Now, there is some amount of reinforcing that some of us have to do just to get past the gatekeepers if surgery is our ultimate goal. And some of it may have to do with a second puberty and rediscovery, but after becoming comfortable, finding a middle ground.

    I just didn’t experience transitioning as moving from doing guy things to doing girl things, but rather doing what i was doing in an uncomfortable, anxious, forced sort of acting way to doing what i do comfortably and naturally. So i guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t use a child’s actions to gender them and they will figure things out for themselves… I think.

    I always hate to follow little light and Emily in comments because they say things so well. Maybe I’m not adding anything, but I wanted to give my 2 cents.

  19. ephraim
    ephraim November 26, 2008 at 8:44 pm |

    @lilacsigil

    most of the parents of these kids who are accepting of them and allow them to present as they gender they wish and most of the medical practitioners caring for them (i.e. starting hormone blockers to delay the onset of puberty), acknowledge that there are some trans kids who do not grow up to be trans adults, i.e. they eventually live satisfying lives in their assigned genders with no zucker-style aversion therapy. they also know that there are many trans adults who were not trans kids – they had childhoods that pretty much conformed to their assigned genders. as shitty as the DSM definition of gender identity disorder is, even it acknowledges a distinction between childhood onset and adult onset GID. and remember, hormone blockers don’t equal hormonal transition, they simply delay puberty for several years, effectively buying time for the kids to be able to decide.

  20. alicepaul
    alicepaul November 26, 2008 at 11:33 pm |

    I have to agree with William in terms of deviance, abnormality, etc. As someone who is queer as well as “mentally” disabled. I have enormous distrust of psychiatry, because of its history and because of who the “experts” are vs. who is “sick.”

    I am speaking for myself here; I am aware that many people feel psych meds/treatment improved or saved their lives. But I do think some suspicion and distrust is ultimately the best approach.

  21. Isabel
    Isabel November 27, 2008 at 12:02 am |

    Oh, god, that is horrific and heartbreaking. I totally agree with you, Jill, about the need to loosen up these roles and restrictions; it really baffles my mind that someone would actively get upset if a little boy started playing with Barbies. Like you say, maybe they’ll eventually identify as transgendered, maybe not; maybe they’ll always be a boy who likes to wear skirts, and maybe they’ll be a girl, and maybe they’ll identify some other way. I just can’t understand the idea of making kids do things based on what sex they were born as. Oh, I want to cry for those little kids in Zucker’s practice.

    Also, I’d never heard of Zucker, but anyone else catch the not-at-all skeptical paraphrasing of that woman who wrote The Female Brain or whatever the fuck that widely debunked book was called? Agreed with little light that the biases on display here are seriously troubling. Like phrasing this as a debate over “childhood indulgence.” I am too upset and bewildered over that to commentate more on that particular word choice but let it be known I now officially have a beef with that author.

    On a happier note, Bridget sounds like pretty much the most adorable little kid ever. And cute little kids pretty much always make me smile.

  22. denelian
    denelian November 27, 2008 at 1:05 am |

    i was never anything but a girl. but i was never “girly”. my mom bought me dolls, my dad got me transformers (and best of all the WHOLE of voltron! it came apart into all 5 lions and had little figurines for the people inside…)
    later, late teens to now, when i think about it or talked to my last therapist about it, it seems very strange that i never tried to make myself a boy. i have hated the assigned role as “girl” my entire life – the discouragment from speaking out in class, or the way i was always told if i was hit i was to get help, not defend myself. i guess i decided at an early age that if was a girl, then the world was going to TAKE ME AS I AM. my parents tried (and mostly suceeded) – they defended me to teachers and administrators and doctors. i vividly remember a conversation my mom had with a history teacher: him “she never takes notes” mom “whats her grade?” him “well, she has an A” mom “whats the problem then?” him “she doesn’t take notes!” mom “are they required?” him “no, but all girls take notes! only boys never take notes” mom “If she has an A, the only problem here would be your sexist attitude.”
    and my mom is a fairly gender conforming person…

    anyway, my point is that i think Jill is right. if there weren’t “gender conformity” standards, i think most of this unhappiness would go away. who decided that girls speaking in class was bad? that only boys should be outspoken that way? WHY? the defining stereotypes DON’T MAKE SENSE anyway!

    i’m sorry, i’m babbling again…

  23. William
    William November 27, 2008 at 1:12 am |

    As someone who is queer as well as “mentally” disabled. I have enormous distrust of psychiatry, because of its history and because of who the “experts” are vs. who is “sick.”

    If you’re interested in philosophy or social theory you might want to give Michel Foucault a try if you haven’t already. His work can be a bit on the dense side, but its some of the most brilliant non-clinical material I’ve read on the subject of mental illness. Foucault wrote pretty extensively on psychiatric power and how the concept of madness evolved into the concept of mental illness as Europe’s social needs, demands, and outlook changed. In particular he paid close attention to society decides what constitutes health and what constitutes illness. He was also a gay man, so theres a bit of that perspective in a lot of his work. I’ve argued in more than one class that his work ought to be required reading for anyone planning on going into psychology, counseling, or social work because he provides a good social construction alternative to the dominant medical view of mental illness in the west.

  24. Jesurgislac
    Jesurgislac November 27, 2008 at 1:23 am |

    I think this is muddling two things.

    People shouldn’t be enforcing artificial “gender norms” on any child, whether trans or cisgendered. Little boys should get to be able to play with dolls and dress up in fancy clothes and play with makeup without being asked if this means they want to be girls. Kids should be able to play with any damn toy they want, be interested in makeup and dressup or not, and play football or Barbies or both.

    But this will never stop some little kids from being able to say, definitely, at an early age, that they just know they’re transgendered.

  25. Kit
    Kit November 27, 2008 at 1:43 am |

    Yes, society should allow people to express (or not express) gender in any way they please. The world would be a much better place. But that doesn’t solve everything. It wouldn’t help anyone who was born into a body of one sex but wants to be in, and would feel more comfortable in, a body of the other sex. I think well-meaning feminists can be too quick to assume that trans-ness and genderqueerness are all about gender, which is social, and they ignore the physical, biological aspect. Saying “if there just wasn’t such pressure for gender conformity, nobody would want/need to transition” can turn into a liberal version of Dr. Zucker’s coercive agenda. It implies that transpeople only choose to transition because they’re not enlightened enough.

  26. jayinchicago
    jayinchicago November 27, 2008 at 3:24 am |

    It makes me feel really awful that many responses here seem to indicate that it would be better if trans kids just didn’t exist…if we just had a less coercive and punitive gender system.
    But why should that be the goal? What’s so *wrong* with being trans?

  27. bitchiocracy
    bitchiocracy November 27, 2008 at 4:49 am |

    For 5 years I’m trying to wean my daughter off of barbies and all things pink. If only some so obviously unbiased not sexist doctor could have told me the solution was right there – I should have married my abusive ex! Damn, I wonder if it’s too late to accept the marriage proposition…

    Zucker’s belief is that with enough therapy, such children can be made to feel comfortable in their birth sex.

    Made feel comfortable? Cos how can people be comfortable with who they are if you don’t make them to be the way they are supposed to be? My. God. I wonder if doctor Zucker is feeling comfortable with his head so far up his ass. Even more important question, how can Dr. Zucker pull “psychiatry” out of his ass, if his head is blocking the way?

  28. drakyn
    drakyn November 27, 2008 at 5:27 am |

    I agree jay, I got the same exact feeling.
    Other than things directly caused by transphobia/cissexism, there is nothing wrong with being trans* (body dissonance is exacerbated greatly when treatment, whichever is best for the individual, is refused/delayed).
    I do not understand this fascination with eugenics/genocide. Countries legislate so that we are forced to be sterilized to change our legal sex and feminists even tell us we should be morally mandated out of existence or “cured” with talking therapies.
    Removing rigid gender/sex roles would remove the stigma from crossdressing and the like; but that would not make transsexuals, genderqueer**, etc folks cease to exist.

    And fyi, not wanting long hair or wanting dresses does not make you trans*; especially not transsexual. And it is really fucking appropriative to say it does. Being transsexual has nothing to do with gender/sex roles or misogyny; it is about your mental map not matching your body.

    **Just wanted to note that a person can be both genderqueer and transsexual; and they could also be a crossdresser.

  29. Hayley Klug
    Hayley Klug November 27, 2008 at 6:10 am |

    I’m the assistant director of TransActive, the organization that Little Light gave a shoutout to above. While she did a great job responding to the post and explaining a little of what we do, there’s a couple things I’d like to comment on.

    I’ve noticed a disturbing undercurrent in the original post and many of the replies that somehow children are getting whisked off to therapists at the first sign of gender nonconformity and are railroaded into transition in a dark mirror image to the aversion therapy techniques of Zucker and his contemporaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything that TransActive and other organizations on the vanguard of transgender child advocacy do is led and motivated by the expressed wishes of the children. If a child identifies strongly as one gender or another, we’re right there to help them and their family make that a reality. If a child doesn’t identify as male or female and just wants to have policies put in place at their school so they feel safe expressing themselves as they choose, we’re all over that as well.

    I’m also a little mystified by the whole “if only there were more relaxed/nonexistent gender roles, children wouldn’t identify as transgender,” thread in the discussion. If there was no such thing as gender, then yes, I agree, transgender people and children would not exist. Utopian visions aside, I think it’s important to recognize that the children who are identified as gender nonconforming are singled out as such for two reasons – either they express themselves in a way that is more in line with a gender role they were not assigned at birth, or they express a strong desire to have a body that does not match their assigned sex. While the two are often related, they’re quite separate, much as sexual orientation is independent of gender expression. In other words, no matter how egalitarian your society is, you’re still going to have little kids telling their parents “I wish I was a…”

    For a great introduction to TransActive and the work we do, I highly recommend watching Out of the Shadows, a short film that was created to reach out to people (especially parents) about this issue. It’s freely available on YouTube at the following location.

  30. Nic
    Nic November 27, 2008 at 7:49 am |

    Serendipity, just one this about part of your comment I feel I should point out (you said) “I’m female (now?) and have never felt uncomfortable about my gender identity, although I am bisexual.”

    Only because a lot of cis people, straight, gay, bi often don’t get the distinction between gender ID and sexual orientation. From your comment it sort of seems like you are confusing the two, but I can’t be totally sure of what you meant, that could be a misinterpretation on my part.

    Anyway I feel I must point out that gender identity is different than orientation. There’s a good primer male-ness and female-ness and the continum of gender in this article (link also at bottom) and about halfway down it talks about the terms gender ID and sexual orientation…

    Basically sexual orientation refers to “which sex you are erotically attracted to” (i.e. same-sex, opposite sex, both) and ID refers to how you see yourself, or the gender you ID as, (i.e. male, female, combination of both, fluid, neither). The site also further breaks down ID to sexual ID and gender ID. I know terms are constantly changing, and again I could be misreading you…but often people confuse the two and many people go so far as to even believe that transgender automatically equals gay, which is not true. Transgender people can be straight, gay, bi, queer, etc. So, I just try and point the whole “gender ID vs. orientation” thing out when the opportunity presents. Again, sorry if I misread what you wrote…but perhaps there’s other people on here who were confused and would like to check out what the terms mean.

    And I totally agree that gender should be seen on a continuum and not the rigid either/or that society currently enforces. And again, in this article there’s some good commentary on this, and some cool charts, I like the one that shows the “traditional view of gender” vs. the “gender today” chart where the female curve extends over both the female and male spectrum, but the male curve doesn’t extend in to female spectrum at all because of restrictions placed by patriarchy on what it means to be male that are still rigidly enforced to this day. (I like visuals when possible ; )

    http://www.gendertalk.com/info/tgism.shtml

  31. Karen
    Karen November 27, 2008 at 9:28 am |

    Wow, fear of doctors like Dr. Zucker and his methods compelled me to hide my transgender feelings as a child in the 60’s. Unfortunately, I ended up adopting something like them as I became intensely self-loathing, burying everything until the brink of suicide in later adulthood. Puberty-blocking medicine? What a miracle that would have been for me! If only parents and society at the time would have supported it… so much of my later suffering would have been avoided. I am so thankful for the caring and enlightened doctors and therapists that helped me out of a downward spiral, restoring me to healthy thinking, feeling, and eventual surgery. My life since 1992 has has its ups and downs, but being female has been wonderful for me, and I am very happy with myself now.

  32. estraven
    estraven November 27, 2008 at 10:06 am |

    @Jesurgislac:
    I totally second your viewpoint. I am a cisgendered woman, but not one inclined to conform to our society’s feminine standards: I dress in a unisex style, never wear makeup or jewels, and am considered pretty aggressive on the job. I wouldn’t want to compare my troubles, as a teenager being forced to do all kinds of “crazy” things (move with grace! smile! wear high-heeled, two-siezes-too-small-shoes! wax your hair away!) with those of an actual trasngendered person.

    On the other hand, indeed living in a more tolerant society could help both nonconformist AND transgendered people; the latter because they would be more free to experiment in their new gender, and thus prepare themselves for what I think must be a very difficult decision – or, more correctly, a sequence of very difficult decisions.

  33. Reader
    Reader November 27, 2008 at 10:14 am |

    Here’s an article on transgender children published months before the NPR and Atlantic coverage. Zucker is interviewed.

    http://www.5280.com/issues/2008/0803/feature.php?pageID=1017

  34. William
    William November 27, 2008 at 10:32 am |

    t makes me feel really awful that many responses here seem to indicate that it would be better if trans kids just didn’t exist…if we just had a less coercive and punitive gender system.
    But why should that be the goal? What’s so *wrong* with being trans?

    I think that there would be far less of a need for the trans* label if we lived in a society with less rigid gender norms, but that doesn’t translate to a feeling that it would be better if trans kids didn’t exist. I see the trans* label as largely defined in opposition, an identity based around a rejection of a perceived norm. Without that perceived norm children (cis and trans) would be free to explore their own identity without feeling the need to buck the system or rigidly assert who they think they are because of the pressure society uses to put them “in their place.” I think the end result would be that you’d have a lot more trans people in a system with a less rigid gender system, not fewer.

  35. William
    William November 27, 2008 at 10:44 am |

    tell us we should be morally mandated out of existence or “cured” with talking therapies.

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but what Zucker and his ilk are practicing is not talking therapy. Zucker’s methods are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and would be pretty much indefensible from the point of view of either the Psychoanalytic and Person-Centered schools. The same is true of his goals.

    The problem with Zucker is that he believes that there is a “right” way to be and a “wrong” way to be, and that people who are the “wrong” way can not only be treated but ought to be treated with an eye towards bringing their behavior and thinking (with no regard for their emotional experience or agency) back to the norm. He does this through coercion and through operant conditioning.

    The good news is that, at least within my admittedly small sample, I’ve yet to run into a young psychologist in training who isn’t disgusted and horrified by Zucker’s methods, and I’d say close to two thirds of people I’ve talked to see DSM IV’s “Gender Identity Disorder” the same way they see DSM II’s pathologizing of homosexuality.

  36. fireeyedgirl
    fireeyedgirl November 27, 2008 at 11:02 am |

    i found it so hard to read past the blatant use of the wrong pronouns in every sentence that i can’t take this article seriously.

  37. Holly
    Holly November 27, 2008 at 11:19 am |

    What a thoroughly disgusting and biased article. Drakyn and Jay are right — a lot of this stuff amounts to anti-trans eugenics of one sort or another. 20 years ago, people were saying this stuff about gay folks — “wouldn’t it be great if we could ensure nobody had to grow up gay?”

    The best response to articles like this is for parents of trans kids and trans adults to write in and say “Go to Hell. My kid turned out just fine, is as happy and well-adjusted as anyone else, and his/her life is not a “bad outcome.” It’s only fear and prejudice that creates those outcomes, and leads misinformed parents to believe that the supposed tragedy of being trans is somehow inherent instead of the result of a hostile and ignorant world.”

    I just think that in a true post-feminist utopia, no one would bother to have any surgery.

    Bzzzt, completely wrong, try again. There are plenty of reasons to have surgeries that would still exist even absent any political influences whatsoever.

    Because a when you are really young, these characteristics don’t mean anything to you at a social level. You just look at the other kids around you and realise that this is just not right… You don’t have what you were meant to have.

    I think it’s a little more complicated than that, since very young kids who show signs of being trans or just being against the grain gender-wise often do so via strong social cues that they’ve picked up. Wanting to wear dresses or pink is not really a universal timeless signifier of identifying with femaleness, it’s learned. For whatever reason, trans kids start identifying — a psychosocial process — with the “other” gender at a very young age, and this often includes social as well as bodily characteristics.

    Thanks for posting (and for the edits) Jill.

  38. Isabel
    Isabel November 27, 2008 at 12:12 pm |

    just to clarify real quick – i most emphatically do NOT wish all trans kids would go away, or think that would happen if everyone became all chill about the gender stuff. i think becoming chill about the gender stuff would benefit everyone, cis trans & other, because then little cis kids could play with whatever toys they wanted and not be incorrectly assumed to be trans or need correcting, and little trans kids could also play with whatever toys they wanted and if they asserted their gender identity beyond that (i mean there’s a difference i think between a little boy who likes barbie and a little boy who says “i’m a girl”) their gender identity would be respected and taken seriously and not punished and when they started to hit puberty they could go into treatment. not sure if jayinchicago was talking about me but figured better safe than sorry.

    also, the more i think about it, the more this article pisses me off. the pronouns thing is a serious problem. as are all the other problems mentioned. oy.

  39. drakyn
    drakyn November 27, 2008 at 1:45 pm |

    William, I am quite aware of Zucker and his abuses. I learned about him back when I was first researching trans*-related info when I was 15.
    I was directly quoting two different feminist writers (Raymond and Bindel) as well as a similar undercurrent in this (feminist) thread. Hence why I said feminists and not doctors/shrinks.

  40. William
    William November 27, 2008 at 2:53 pm |

    William, I am quite aware of Zucker and his abuses. I learned about him back when I was first researching trans*-related info when I was 15.
    I was directly quoting two different feminist writers (Raymond and Bindel) as well as a similar undercurrent in this (feminist) thread. Hence why I said feminists and not doctors/shrinks.

    I wasn’t trying to lecture or correct you, but if my post was interpreted that way, I sincerely apologize. It was clear you had a good grasp on what you were talking about. I was more jumping off of something you’d said which seemed to sum up a theme I’ve heard a lot before (the use of talk therapy to “cure” trans* individuals). Mostly I was pointing out that even within the community of doctors and psychologists Zucker’s work is generally seen as aberrant. Therapy can often a bad rap because of people like him and thats doubly true when you’re talking about an oppressed minority that has traditionally been targeted for elimination by psychiatric power.

    Like I said, though, there are a growing number of great clinicians out there who specialize in working with trans* youth without an eye towards changing or “curing” their gender, many of whom are trans* people themselves. More importantly a lot of the professional schools are changing the way they deal with diversity in general and trans* issues in specific, strongly emphasizing acceptance and encouraging students to question the politics behind diagnostic labels.

  41. Kim
    Kim November 28, 2008 at 4:46 am |

    The biggest lie is hidden in this sentence: “Some of those kids will grow up to identify as trans, or as a gender other than the one they were born as; “. If a girl is born with a penis and gonads she is born female – I wonder why some people can ignore that… If a girl is born with a penis and gonads her gender is female. She is raised up as boy cause some people think the penis defines gender – but this isn’t the truth. If this girls says “I am a girl” some people still belive that this girls is a boy with a “gender identity disorder”. Boy? She ever had been a girl. Most of the cruelty and misrespecting of human rights begin when you define these girls as boys. To tell they are “boys” is a biological lie. It’s a misrespecting of human nature.

  42. Working on my PHD in Child Psych
    Working on my PHD in Child Psych November 28, 2008 at 8:25 am |

    The key to counseling children with “gender” issues is to back off of them. This is what I tell the parents of the children I counsel, who bring their children in when they start to deviate from current gender norms (asking to be called by a differently gendered name, wanting to only wear differently gendered clothing/accessories, etc). Leave them alone, allow them to explore whatever avenues of identity they wish (that’s what childhood is supposed to be about, right?), and eventually they’ll grow in to the person they’re supposed to be. The key thing to remember is that your child is a CHILD. Period.

    For most of the parents I’ve spoken to about this issue, the issue of safety is at the forefront. They’re afraid to let their son go to school in a dress for fear of what may happen to them there, etc. As others have said, this is a cultural issue that goes beyond psychology, biology, or whether or not a child can be a trans individual (they certainly can be). What we’re seeing here is a new mainstream awareness of trans-identity as a very real thing, which has parents and society in general running scared at the moment. The dangerous, extreme folks like Dr. Zucker are always the first to get media attention. When mainstream society beings to see trans role models in avenues other than tragedy in the news and as the butt of jokes, societies attitude *will* relax/change. This is happening slowly (Stu Rasmussen, for example, Isis on ANTM- not perfect, but something) but won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, the children should be our first priority.

    Please don’t lose heart. Younger and more aware people ARE entering into the field of child psychology, many of whom are increasingly fluid about the idea of gender in childhood and beyond. I speak with these people every day, locally and via the internet. The old school is on it’s way out- there are many of us struggling to help these children receive the freedom of identity they need and deserve as they grow.

  43. Holly
    Holly November 28, 2008 at 11:40 am |

    The biggest lie is hidden in this sentence: “Some of those kids will grow up to identify as trans, or as a gender other than the one they were born as; “. If a girl is born with a penis and gonads she is born female – I wonder why some people can ignore that… If a girl is born with a penis and gonads her gender is female.

    It’s true that it’s more accurate to say “assigned to” than “born as,” since gender assignments are largely just a decision of doctors and parents based on physical sex characteristics. But I think you can cut Jill some slack for using the common-parlance shorthand, there’s a lot of linguistic slippage between gender and sex.

    For that matter, if we want to nitpick, it’s not clear that any newborn has a “gender,” if we mean gender as the social construction. They might have something in their brains, maybe possibly, that in interaction with a social milieu means that they’re likely to end up relating to gender and identifying in a different way than other newborns. But that’s not the same as a gender or a gender identity. A baby being delivered doesn’t identify with anything, and part of the point of Jill’s original post is that it’s not really necessary for us to project our anxieties about gender (regardless of who we are) onto growing, evolving little minds.

  44. Interrobang
    Interrobang November 28, 2008 at 2:31 pm |

    Could we maybe back off the gender essentialism thing a bit? Gender is performative and political, it’s not something that just exists out there in the world like trees and rocks; it’s also largely relative to which culture you happen to be in at the time — case in point, Thai culture recognises three genders, and various of the Native American cultures recognise three or four, depending on how you define it. Children aren’t born one gender or the other, they’re socialised into them from birth, so even by the time someone’s about old enough to remember, they’ve already had two or three years’ training. As Amanda Marcotte once quipped, in some circles, that’s a PhD.

    I also think people seem to be confusing gender (signifiers of political performance) with gender roles (behaviours culturally linked to those signifiers and assumed to be the province of agents displaying them) and sex (the biological reality of which bits you have), which is understandable, because our culture insists that all men (performers of the gender known as “masculinity”) be male and all women (performers of the gender known as “femininity”) be female. There’s no earthly reason, other than tradition, why this must be the case, or even why “masculinity” and “femininity” need to exist at all.

    I come at it from the point of view that gender is sort of like that saying, “It ain’t what your name is, it’s what they call you.” I was 18 before I realised that when people talked about “women,” they meant all people with bodies like mine, and not just people who behaved like what our culture says “women” behave like. Given my druthers, I would not identify as either a man or a woman; I’m not either of those things, although I don’t either want or need a male body (I’d be happier in a non-female, non-male body, I guess).

  45. CBrachyrhynchos
    CBrachyrhynchos November 28, 2008 at 9:37 pm |

    Thanks everyone for a civil discussion.

  46. Alara Rogers
    Alara Rogers November 29, 2008 at 8:39 am |

    I believe there are at least four aspects to what we (meaning society in general) think of as “gender”, and they do not move in lockstep with each other, so it causes a lot of confusion among people who haven’t learned to separate them out.

    Biological sex is what your body looks like, and while it is usually male or female, people who are born with intermediate or indeterminate biological sex do exist.

    Mental sex is the gender of your mind. Since the mind is the self, your mental sex is your “actual” sex, not your biological sex. In transpeople, this is not the same as their biological sex (although it is not always the *opposite* sex. I knew a transgendered neuter once. Hir mental sex was “none”. I don’t know what hir biological sex was.)

    Gender conformity/gender role performance is the degree to which the person feels the need to conform to the social role assigned to their mental sex. This can be positive or negative (not in the moral sense, simply in the mathematical sense), weak or strong, in that a person can have conformity to the gender role of their brain, or conformity to the opposite gender role, or no conformity, and conformity can be weak or strong. A person with a male mental sex and strong positive conformity might be macho, or very male-geeky, or be strongly attached to performing a male role in some way. A person with a female mental sex with a strong negative conformity might also be very attached to being macho or performing traditional male roles. (Or, she might just have noticed that male roles come with more power.) A person with a male mental sex with a weak positive gender role conformity might be a Sensitive New Age Guy, or a committed feminist, a stay-at-home dad who wears pink if he feels like it, or in some other respect just doesn’t feel a strong need to perform the male role all the time. A person with a female mental sex and no gender role conformity may present as highly androgynous, exhibiting aspects of both male and female gender roles. In most patriarchal societies, male gender role is synonymous with power, and a great deal of effort is expended to make men conform to male gender role; whether females are expected to conform to female gender role or not has to do with *how* patriarchal. For instance, after years of feminism our society is much more comfortable with non-conforming women than non-conforming men.

    Sexual orientation is who you want to sleep with. I see this also as having more dimensions than most people see; I see strong monosexuality, het and homo (you are only attracted to one sex, your own or the opposite), weak monosexuality (you are mostly only attracted to one sex, but circumstances or a particularly interesting person can lead you to develop interest in the other sex), strong bisexualty (you are strongly attracted to members of both sexes), and weak bisexuality (you feel attraction to both sexes, but circumstances can lead you to wholly suppress attraction to one or the other if needed.) In a homophobic society, usually the only people who exhibit homosexual behavior are the strong monosexual homosexuals and the strong bisexuals; weak monosexual homosexuals, weak monosexual heterosexuals and weak bisexuals can be convinced by societal homophobia to never exhibit any homosexual behavior and possibly never even feel homosexual desires. On the other hand, in a patriarchal society that treats women like shit, weak bisexual and heterosexual women can be pushed toward homosexuality by the feeling that men are abusive, and weak bisexual and hetereosexual men can be pushed toward homosexuality by the feeling that women are inferior. I *suspect* that a sexually egalitarian and non-homophobic society would have more homosexuality than a patriarchal homophobic one, but the effect of patriarchy in driving a wedge between the sexes makes the effect more complicated.

    So a transgender child may have a weak gender role conformity, or even a negative gender role conformity, and still be transgender. It’s quite possible that transpeople with a negative gender role conformity will never realize what they are, because of the confusion of gender role conformity with sex. This is where feminists and transpeople talk past each other — feminists decry enforcement of gender role conformity, and transpeople talk about inherent sex, and since the two are confused feminists may see transpeople as undermining their goals. I believe this is the wrong attitude. Transpeople benefit from no societally imposed gender role conformity as well (and all ciswomen, transwomen, and transmen benefit very directly from redefining the female gender role so it is more socially powerful in comparison to the male role than is is now.)

    You can be gay and have a strong gender role conformity. You can be transgender, gay, and have weak gender role confomity. You can be cisgender, straight, and have negative gender role conformity. None of these things *have* to go together. The model in which all people with women’s bodies are women, play submissive female roles, and like sex with men, and all people with men’s bodies are men, play macho male roles, and like sex with women, is not just wrong in one aspect or another. It’s wrong in *all* aspects.

  47. Ettina
    Ettina December 2, 2008 at 3:40 pm |

    I wrote the following blog entry about that ‘black kid who wants to be white’ analogy:
    http://abnormaldiversity.blogspot.com/2008/12/wanting-to-be-what-youre-not.html

  48. Girl with Pen » Blog Archive » A Boy’s Life

    […] Jill at Feministe has some excellent analysis on the matter, particularly one doctor’s particular take on the role of the mother in “gender-identity disorders” as he so terms it. […]

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